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The Battle for Environmental Justice


That people of color are targeted repeatedly for the worst kind of polluting plants is absolutely 100% an intentional act of corporations and politicians.

The Fifth District of Louisiana’s St. James Parish was never exactly a bustling community — but it was still a community.

Then the local landmarks began to disappear. Woodrow’s grocery closed down. The St. James sugar co-op ground to a halt. The cleaners and post office shut their doors for lack of business.

Heavy manufacturing moved in. Duck’s Grocery sold out to a rail car and crude-oil storage facility. The high school football field was overrun by subsidiaries of a Chinese company and the Koch family’s corporate empire, which teamed up to build a huge petrochemical plant. Buena Vista Baptist Church now worships a couple thousand feet from a methanol plant and asphalt depot.

Against this background, many parish residents feared they had no prayer of stopping a $9.4 billion plastics complex that the Formosa Plastics Group proposed in the district on strips of flat sugar cane fields. Wedged in between other industrial sites along the Mississippi River, the facility would cover an expanse big enough for about 1,200 football fields, while discharging massive amounts of toxic emissions into the air.

The history of environmental justice struggles is defined by localized fights that are usually lost but very occasionally won. It requires massive community engagement against huge odds. These communities are chosen for a reason–they are poor, dominated by people of color, and in some areas have low rates of English being spoken. The other side are multinational corporations and the politicians they buy. It’s very hard. Moreover, none of this has ever led to serious legal changes that would make it harder to site factories there. The reason is obvious–NIMBYism, so liberals aren’t real interested in this kind of thing either. Maybe these Louisiana workers can win. It has happened.

The thing is that environmental inequities happen in a variety of ways. Biden recently announced a goal that the U.S. would half its carbon emissions by 2030. Well, we’ll see. Good goal though. But the reality is that polluted air is something that millions of people around the nation and even more around the world are dealing with every day. Again, this is largely decided based on race and class.

Each day, 9 out of 10 people across the world breathe polluted air as they work, catch sunshine on their stoops, prepare meals and even as they sleep. Shaina Oliver is an Indigenous peoples’ rights advocate and field organizer with Moms Clean Air Force, a group of 1 million mothers in the United States determined to protect children from air pollution and climate change. Oliver, who was born in Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico, was diagnosed with asthma as an infant. Now, she told Truthout, she can’t sleep without an air purifier in her bedroom. Residents of Shiprock have been exposed to poor outdoor air quality on account of atmospheric conditions that trap plumes of emissions from nearby coal-fired power plants, in combination with poor indoor air quality related to the burning of coal for heat.

Later in life, Oliver and her family found out she had been born with a slew of congenital medical issues that resulted in hearing and speech difficulties. “Many of my people are impacted by these same disparities and are being told that these disparities are genetic traits,” Oliver said on an April 15 panel hosted by Moms Clean Air Force and the National Tribal Air Association (NTAA). “Our people know these health disparities are caused by contamination related to the industries that have encroached into our reservations where our treaty rights are abused.”

More than 50 years ago, when the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, it required state and federal governments in the U.S. to collaborate for the first time on clearing the skies by requiring the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set limits on ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead, many of which we now know contribute to the climate emergency and harm human health. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, or “good neighbor” requirements, instructed the EPA to hold states accountable for preventing air pollution generated in their jurisdiction that might drift downwind across state lines, dirtying air many miles away.

But the gains have not been linear or comprehensive. After declining 27 percent from 2009 to 2016, the annual average level of asthma-triggering particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) increased by 5.7 percent between 2016 and 2018, according to a 2021 study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers. Wildfires likely contributed to the increase, as did lackluster enforcement during former President Trump’s first two years in office. The increase in PM2.5 — which is smaller than 1/30 the width of a human hair and thus able to enter organs, including the brain, through the bloodstream — resulted in 9,700 additional premature deaths, according to the study.

Another study published July 2020 in the journal Science shows that advancements in pollution control are not happening equitably in terms of spatial distribution. The groups of people who were most exposed to pollution in 1981 are largely the same groups who were most exposed in 2016, the authors explain. “More populated, whiter, higher income, and less Hispanic areas at baseline in 1981 are associated with reductions in [PM2.5 percentile ranking levels] over time,” the study explains; while poorer, less white and less educated census tracts saw increases in percentile ranking over the same years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, we made major gains on environmental issues. But that’s largely stalled out for 40 years now. There’s been some wins, mostly in the ancient forest campaigns and in preserving land. But in terms of clean air and water, like OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the FDA and so many other agencies, the relevant parts of the government have suffered from a combination of regulatory capture and budget cuts. We need whole new rounds of legislation. It should be part and parcel of our climate goals. And all of these new laws need to be sure they are quite specifically targeting environmental inequalities.

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